The Arab Spring has set a new worldwide trend with its recent spate of televised revolutions. There’re some who take on to the street while the rest watch the high voltage political drama live and an ideological synergy is created between the two. Governments feel scared not only of those thousands dancing and chanting in frenzy in front of the camera but of the dormant millions too who passively get indoctrinated. The mass protests in the Arab world and in India share something in common; they have not been put up by the rank and file of any political outfit. This mass upsurge in India includes emotionally (more than rationally) charged men and women who feel corruption at high places and down the line has rendered them helpless and insecure. The civil society movement surely is a reflection of the growing disgust of the people against India’s political class which has systematically ruined the institutions, abused them to their advantage and have gone scot free. On each issue of corruption from the appointment of the CVC to the CWG loot, 2G scam and black marketing of food stocks like sugar and pulses the nation was expecting a firm and strong message in the form of befitting action. But, it was too little, too late. Inept handling of a popular perception and intrinsically just demand obfuscated the whole process. Now it has created a situation which also sends a message that howsoever just or unjust, protest by a group of people can render even our highest institutions including the parliament helpless. This is a scary situation looking at the diversity of interest groups in India who may also resort to similar pressure tactics in future. But in face of an insensitive government and largely rotten political class can one hold such mass-movements responsible?
It’s a strange crisis of sorts. If one can’t deny the need to have a strong legislation to check unabated corruption, one can’t even deny that parliament alone as the representative body of the people can legislate that. Sensitivity on the part of government and reasonable persuasion by people, both are required for democracy. The government no doubt misread the popular mood of anger against corruption in general and symbols of corruption in particular which it kept defending for long. Now the movement leadership is setting a new precedence of directly engaging with the parliament and forcing it to accept its version entirely. Perhaps the best method would have been to let the parliament decide both the Janlokpal and Lokpal Bill on the basis of merit, constitutionality and practicality. Anna is not Gandhi, neither Arvind Kejariwal his Nehru. They’re people like you and I, but surely much more charged, impassioned and committed to a common and just cause. The Indians, particularly the vibrant middle class looked at them as someone from outside politics who could invoke the silent mass and encourage them to awake, arise or be forever fallen. Their message was well received and we see the surging crowd in support all over which is a big moral victory to this largely impromptu people’s movement. Nevertheless, it’s not just about the support; it’s also about the modus-operandi and the democratic conventions to translate popular demands and imperatives into an effective piece of legislation.
In fact, corruption today is not just a political problem. It’s a social and cultural problem too. In the political domain it begins with the selection of candidates on the basis of caste, religion, muscle and money power by the political parties. Political parties, irrespective of their hue and colour indulge in similar practice. In several cases, voters have to make a choice between the devil and the deep sea. But do the same voters also not vote on caste and religious considerations? People of the country are no less responsible for the situation. Today, they seem to be united for a cause because they’re fighting a faceless enemy called corruption. But tomorrow under any existing law if an influential leader is booked on the charges of corruption or crime many among the protestors are again likely to align with the person on the basis of their caste and religious affiliations. UP is the most befitting example. Any opposition to the blatant corruption and misuse of millions of tax payers’ money on personal glorification is fiercely contested as a design of Manuvadi oppression. In neighbouring Bihar, the decade long social and political protests against the rampant crime, corruption and nepotism of the much maligned Laloo Yadav regime was also confronted as polarization of the feudal forces against the Garib-Gurba (Sic) or oppressed castes and got caste based support as well. In India, primary group affiliations are still very strong and so benevolent that they can condone or overlook all sorts of crime including corruption. The big question is how the civil society movement is going to tackle these social intricacies.
The nation needs a strong Lokapal no doubt. But it also needs a commitment from each one of us that when it comes to isolating the corrupt and the criminals it will rise above narrow sectarian affiliations. After all, those selected for the office of Lokpal will also come from the same society. All the more important is to strengthen the inherent system of checks and balance in the polity which has gone topsy-turvy due to political interference and compulsions of vote bank and coalition politics in recent years. The compulsions should not override the authority vested in the administrative machinery and constitutional authorities. Most certainly the head of government should not feel helpless to such compulsions which he sadly admitted. In his fight against the British, our freedom fighters adopted the method of pressure-compromise-pressure to make headway. That helped both the sides meet half way. In the free and democratic India can the government and civil society take a lesson from our patriotic forefathers so that we bring the desired change in the system without creating any constitutional crisis by prolonged confrontation. Let’s not forget the world is watching the developments at the largest democracy with keen interest.
(Author is a Senior Faculty of Interdisciplinary Design Studies at National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, INDIA)